Everything you need to know about toy timing

It's never been more complicated to get a toy to land in the right place at the right time—especially when it's based on a series or film. Here's how three companies are adapting.
October 5, 2022

Once upon a time, toy-focused CP programs for kids shows and movies followed the predictable cycle dictated by big networks and major studios. Summertime blockbusters and fall TV laid the framework for toycos to plan well-organized rollouts timed around key retail moments.

Today, unpredictability reigns, with chaotic supply chains affecting timing, and streaming content rolling out in six-packs rather than full seasons. Meanwhile, disappearing theatrical windows have drastically changed movie launches and the CP programs that accompany them.

But in business, challenges often bring opportunities. That’s the lens through which Marianne James, Hasbro’s VP of EMEA and Asia, sees the current landscape.

“Tried and tested models still have their place, especially when you’ve got a [CP] program that leans on core pillars like toys and games,” says James. “What is interesting now is that we can test and learn. Instead of dropping products based on seasons, we’re now looking to where a rollout could be more relevant to a culture in one of our specific markets.”

One way Hasbro has shifted its strategy to accommodate the “highly unpredictable” nature of the market is to space out product releases in smaller waves instead of releasing the entire range in one large launch, she says. This provides the ability to establish contingencies if logistical issues occur in the company’s supply line.

“If content is pushed back and we experience a delay at retail, or there are problems getting product on the water, it’s better to be flexible and have a softer, more phased-out launch instead of using a big, all-encompassing 360 strategy,” says James.


Hasbro is shifting its strategy for “vault” brands like My Little Pony and Transformers (pictured) to create deeper relationships with consumers

This is especially important for Hasbro’s “vault” brands such as Transformers, Peppa Pig and My Little Pony, which exist in highly competitive toy categories, most notably preschool. To have a major rollout fall flat due to timing problems is not an option, so the company is expanding its arsenal of marketing and engagement tools, she says.

“Location-based entertainment, promotions, publishing—we’re trying to make sure we’ve got something that can connect with the emotional side of consumers, as opposed to something that’s quite transactional. This can help ensure that we’re building long-term loyalty for our brands at market and remaining relevant to our consumers.”

For some companies, consumer habits are not as much of an issue as the ongoing effects of the pandemic in China. Josue Rosenzweig, founder of Hong Kong-based United Smile, says the unpredictability of manufacturing dates means ultra-specific timing is nearly impossible for indie toycos, which don’t have the scale to demand guarantees. His company is now focusing less on exact timing and more on agility and speed to market.

“We have to develop our toy line without thinking of any specific release window to start,” he says. “As soon as we sign a deal with a company for its IP, we immediately start developing our product lines so we can hit the market as soon as possible.”

United Smile opened its doors in 2020 and quickly landed a deal to be the first exclusive master toy partner for Guru Studio’s CG-animated preschool series True and the Rainbow Kingdom. But Rosenzweig, a former Hasbro exec and a seasoned entrepreneur, says the unpredictability of COVID protocols in China has made launching the company doubly hard.

“We try to prepare the ‘full package’ for our distributors at launch, but we are never able to predict if the ports are going to be open or if our factories will be able to run,” he says. “If one person gets COVID within a block of factories in China, the whole block will close down for at least 10 days.”

Despite those issues, United Smile’s first wave of True and the Rainbow Kingdom plush, dolls and playsets rolled out last September in the US, UK, Canada, Spain and Australia. To date, the line has shipped to more than 25 countries. The toyco has since signed master toy deals with Finnish animation studio Ferly for its Momolu & Friends brand and France’s Cyber Group Studios for its flagship preschool series Gigantosaurus.

United Smile’s screen-based brand strategy is to pick up licenses for properties that have been in the market for four years, to lessen the urgency of screen-to-retail timing. But the challenges of the moment have made even that well-considered strategy less effective.

“In [normal times], I would go to China and sit with my factories and negotiate to ensure that they understand 100% what they are doing,” says Rosenzweig. “Now there’s no direct communication with them, and I have to rely on calls between my product development team and my Hong Kong office to make the product line.”

For companies bringing a new IP to market, the rollout matrix has more variables than ever. In launching its preschool series Dino Ranch last year, Boat Rocker Media folded in CP and mapped out a linear to-retail strategy that included social media, YouTube and an Amazon soft launch.

Toy Timing_Dino Ranch 6FigPk4 (1)

Boat Rocker’s Dino Ranch toy line rode onto US retail shelves this summer, targeting series fans and kid paleontologists

“We premiered [Dino Ranch] on Disney Junior in the US in January 2021, which gave us enough time and brand awareness to launch on e-commerce first that fall,” says Denise Gomez, head of licensing. “This gave us an opportunity to reach those engaged fans who were eager for the product leading into the holiday season, and begin building the case to retailers for our mass launch a year later.”

The second season of the show dropped on Disney Junior July 22, and the Dino Ranch toys from master toy partner Jazwares are set to hit US shelves, including Walmart and Target, this August.

While an online soft launch might not work for every brand, Boat Rocker had identified a lack of compelling dinosaur-themed products at retail and felt confident that kids would be interested in the toys even if they weren’t yet familiar with the brand, says Gomez.

“Audiences don’t necessarily need to be fully invested in the show to purchase a product, because dinos are trending in a massive way,” she says. “Just having this toy line out at retail can be an impulse buy for a two- to five-year-old.”

The company has also been working its YouTube and social media strategy to keep fans engaged between seasons and in advance of the CP line. The Dino Ranch YouTube channel launched in January 2022 and has since racked up more than 144 million views. Boat Rocker releases three content drops a week, including new custom bonus content, feeding fans to YouTube with influencer and social media marketing.

In short, Gomez says the new timing landscape boils down to one thing: adaptability.

“There are so many elements that can affect a CP release, from your platform to your audience and product categories,” she says. “We have to change up our strategies constantly because you’re never going to be able to use the same formula you used before to achieve success.”

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